No to war always?

Fausto Gomez OP

When one speaks of war in ethical and theological perspective, he or she will most probably think of the classical “Just War Theory.” May we speak today of a just war? 

In the past, and up to the twentieth century, wars seemed to be inevitable and the application of the Just War Theory, an ethical demand – or excuse – to go to war and to defend wars. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Just War Theory was “resurrected” again. Then  President George W. Bush and other world leaders used the Just War Theory to justify the war against terrorism and other wars. 

 War is understood as an armed conflict between armies of “enemy” States. There are different kinds of war. We point out here two distinct categories: offensive war (unprovoked war against another State) and defensive war (war against an unjust aggressor). 

The expression “just war” was coined by Aristotle and the Greek philosophers. The Just War Theory was proposed and defended by the two greatest theologians: St. Augustine and especially St. Thomas Aquinas (STh, II-II. 40). The Angelic Doctor asked himself: Is it always a sin to wage war? Generally, it is inhuman and unchristian to wage war, which is a vice against charity or love that is essentially peaceful. Exceptionally, war can be licit – ethical and justifiable – if it fulfills three rigorous conditions: it is called by public authority; there is a just cause, and the intention is right – for the sake of justice and peace. 

The most difficult condition to carry out is the second: going to war for a just cause, which requires the fulfillment of four strict rules: (1) The presence of grave injustice obstinately pursued; (2) The real need to make recourse to war to obtain justice; (3) Proportion between the gravity of the injustice and the calamities to ensue from the war (the principle of “double effect” and “the lesser evil”); (4) A realistic probability of victory. Obviously, St. Thomas’ doctrine on the just war, within the treatise of charity, is ordered to avoid wars. Why? Because it is almost impossible to fulfill all conditions ad bellum and in bello. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) speaks of war within the fifth commandment: Thou shall not kill. It presents the teaching of the Church, particularly the conditions for a just war after Vatican II (CCC, n. 2309, and nos. 2307-2317). 

Vatican II (1962-1965): “It is our clear duty to strain every muscle as we work for the time when all wars can be completely outlawed by international consent.” Vatican II reaffirms the right – and duty – of legitimate defensive war as a last resort (cf. Gaudium et Spes, nos. 79, 80 and 82). St. John Paul II: “There is a right to defend oneself – personally and collectively – against terrorism. This right, as always, must be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in the choice of ends and means.” These limits, however, are usually sidelined. Pope Francis frowns on “the possibility of legitimate defense by means of military force,” and thinks that “preventive attacks or acts of war” entail “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” He underlines, moreover, “the injustice of collateral damage” that accepts unjustly the deaths of civilians.

St. John XXIII is strongly against war in the new context of nuclear weapons. From the podium of the United Nations in New York, St. Paul VI cried out (October 4, 1965): “No more war! War never again! Peace, it is peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and all mankind.” St. John Paul II: Christians strive “to resist and prevent every form of warfare,” for war is “the most barbarous and least effective way of resolving conflicts.” 

Pope Francis: War implies “the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment.” Indeed, “Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil…. In the context of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the enormous growing possibility of new technologies,” there is the grave danger of not using them wisely. “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits… Never again war!” Pope Francis proves convincingly that the traditional concept of “just war … can no longer be upheld today.”  

There is, furthermore, a firm condemnation of the arms race. Vatican II considers the arms race “an utterly treacherous trap for humanity” that harms the poor immensely (Gaudium et Spes, no. 81). To pile up nuclear weapons is an evil. It is an evil for all. Pope John XXIII rejected deterrence and proposed a progressive disarmament. Pope Paul VI deplored deterrence for it does not remove but aggravates the risks of war, and also because it leaves the poor poorer: “every exhausting armament race is an intolerable scandal.” Pope Francis: “International peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation, or on simply maintaining a balance of power.” 

May we speak today of a just war? Respectfully, no. May legitimate collective defense be carried out justly as a last resort? Perhaps. But, why the last resort? Why not – as we should – try again and again by peaceful means like more dialogue, more negotiations, credible and respected intermediaries, etc.? And please: No to collateral damage! 

It used to be said: Si vis pacem para bellum. It ought to be said: Si vis pacem, para pacem: If you want peace, prepare for peace: “There is no way to peace, peace is the way” (Gandhi). We walk to peace by the peaceful path of justice and love. With many others, Christians are asked by their humanity and their faith to be artisans of peace in our warring world: Blessed are the peacemakers!